On Tuesday night in Miami, Khris Middleton hit two of his first three shots, both of which were 3-pointers, and Milwaukee raced out to an early 11-4 lead.
Then he missed his next six shots (one was blocked), as the Bucks were outscored 14-8 to end the first quarter up by one against the shorthanded Heat.
Middleton would finish 8 for 20 from the field, scoring a team-high 22 points in the Bucks’ 91-79 road win. It wasn’t his best shooting night – it also wasn’t bad – but he found other ways to contribute, grabbing seven rebounds and dishing out seven assists while picking up just one personal foul and not committing a turnover.
His overall performance was the most recent example in a month-long stretch during which Middleton has become the Bucks’ top dog and made a late, hard push to be named an All-Star.
Since Dec. 20, Middleton has averaged 23.1 points, 5.0 assists and 3.9 rebounds over 16 games. He’s shot 51.5 percent from the field and 42.3 percent on 3-pointers during that time, while taking the most shots on the team in all but three games (once he was tied). Though his defensive rating has jumped from 102 last year to 111, the 6-foot-8 Middleton is still considered an above-average defender, especially at his position.
His hot streak is well-timed. All-Star reserves will be selected Jan. 28, and Middleton has put a full-court press on the coaches who make those choices. His scoring and shooting numbers over the past month would top the season averages of all Eastern Conference shooting guards, and his per-game assists and rebounds would be among the leaders, as well.
For the year, his stats stack up fairly well against the competition, which includes the likes of Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade, DeMar DeRozan and Nicolas Batum.
Among 2-guards in the East, Middleton is fourth in scoring (17.6 points per game), fifth in field-goal percentage (44.5), first in 3-point percentage (42.7) and first in free-throw percentage (87.3). Talk about a shooting guard. He’s eighth in assists at the position (3.9 per game), but tops in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.2). Long and opportunistic, he’s sixth in steals (1.1 per game).
On the advanced-metric front, Middleton is third among his peers in Real Plus-Minus (1.56), ESPN's macro statistic that estimates a player’s on-court impact on team performance. He’s fifth in Player Efficiency Rating (16.46), fourth among starters.
A basketball ironman, he’s played in 117 straight games, dating back to November of 2014, and is the only Bucks player to have appeared in all 44 games this season.
Middleton’s ascendance as a star-caliber player has coincided with his team’s rise back to respectability. Over those 16 games, the Bucks have gone 9-7, good for a .563 winning percentage far better than their season standing of .432. During Milwaukee’s current three-game win streak, Middleton has averaged 24 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists.
On a young, upstart team, the 24-year-old Middleton, who signed a five-year, $70 million contract last summer, is so valuable because he’s versatile and plays within himself. Even if his shot’s not falling on a given night, he distributes the ball at a high level, rebounds fairly well, plays sound defense and doesn’t make many mistakes. He’s a prototypical modern 2-guard who plays efficiently within the Bucks’ system at both ends but can also succeed when they go to a more amalgamous, position-less arrangement.
In a six-minute stint against the Heat, before departing in the fourth quarter with the Bucks up by 21, Middleton showed his full range of difference-making ability. He hit a pair of jumpers (and missed another), pulled down a couple of defensive boards, had three assists and got a steal.
After the game, Middleton attributed the Bucks playing so well to the defensive rotations. Humble and soft-spoken, Middleton is one to deflect not demand praise; his play does the talking, so his All-Star advocacy will have to be done by others.
Milwaukee hasn’t had an All-Star since 2004 (Michael Redd), and it’s unlikely to have one this season. Still, last year, the Hawks parlayed the buzz from a 17-0 January into getting three players named to the East team, so there is some hope for recency bias.
Middleton’s effort in Miami capped an incontrovertibly All-Star-worthy month. He’ll already be in Toronto for the NBA’s 3-point contest; perhaps another stellar week like the ones he’s been having will give him enough momentum to play in the game, too.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.